Section Review

Comments from the Access to Justice Section chair

James T. Van Buren is an attorney in Fitchburg.
After nearly a year of deliberation, the State Planning Board for Legal Services (SPB) reached a final decision regarding reconfiguration of both state and federally funded legal services providers in the commonwealth. Adopting the recommendation of both the directors of the existing legal service programs and that of the majority of the board of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the SPB voted to halve the number of "full service" state-funded legal service providers. Effective in fiscal year 2005, the remaining five providers will service greater Boston, Worcester County and the four western counties through existing programs, while two new programs will result from mergers in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the commonwealth.

A majority of the SPB voted not to change its prior recommendation that the Legal Services Corporation have four federally funded LSC satellites in the commonwealth. Again, there will be no change in either Greater Boston or Central-Western service areas, but there will be two new providers in the northeast and southeast.

In reaching its decision, the board developed a vision for provision of legal services, as well as core values needed to make that vision a reality. The smaller number of programs reflects a balance between achieving economies of scale (especially on the administrative side) with continuing to maintain (and if possible, increase) service to the client community.

The SPB also voted to recommend to the Supreme Judicial Court the appointment of a legal services "oversight" committee, whose representatives would be drawn from all areas of the commonwealth. This body would be charged, at the very least, with oversight and coordination of all the programs providing civil legal services to the poor throughout Massachusetts.

As noted briefly in my last report, Access to Justice also is monitoring the provision of legal services to indigent criminal defendants. In doing so, we expect to communicate directly with the county bar advocate programs, it being their members, faced with an absurdly low amount of compensation, who are most impacted by the current system. Access to Justice will be willing to support any viable alternative that maintains zealous advocacy, pays fair compensation and is fiscally sound. It is our thought that the bar advocate groups are the best sources to recommend such an alternative.

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